About a year and a half ago I accidentally got a job at Lutheran Social Services. Ok, I guess I am being a little facetious, but the position I accepted was supposed to be a temporary one. I was filling in for a couple weeks for their office coordinator who had recently had surgery. At the end of the second week, the person I was filling in for quit and I was asked to stay on a little longer—a few weeks until they could find another person. A few weeks later I was asked if I would consider applying for the job and staying on permanently.
I had some reservations about taking this job. I was a student and I felt unsure about whether or not I could do a full-time job and full-time school. However, this job did fall in line with a couple plans I’d made for myself. I would be working for an organization that truly helps people better their lives—which is deeply important to me. I wanted to experience other cultures; For me, I thought that meant travelling the world teaching English (maybe at some point in the future it will) but when I started working at Lutheran Social Services the world sort of came to my lobby.
Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota is the only federally-recognized and approved refugee resettlement organization in the state. The agency has resettled refugees in North Dakota since 1946 and has resettled approximately 4,000 refugees from 35 countries in Fargo and West Fargo during the past 14 years. I guess sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and trust that the mundane things will work themselves out. I took so I took the job.
Last month I attended a conference here in Fargo called Building Bridges. The Building Bridges Conference is held annually to provide information and support to communities to aid in the delivery of services to refugees and other immigrants. I wanted to know about what refugees experience, so I agreed to volunteer at the registration table in exchange for being able to attend the conference for free.
The second morning of the conference was devoted to an activity call “Stories of Creating Community.” We were invited to listen to a person that came to the United States as a refugee tell their story. The facilitator, Brad Belzer, told us this was an opportunity to practice “deep listening”. Brad explained that deep listening is a way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening in the moment without trying to control it or judge it. We let go of our inner clamoring and our usual assumptions and listen with respect for precisely what is being said. Our group’s story teller would talk for about a half hour without interruption. After the storyteller was finished speaking, there would be an opportunity for each person in the group to make comments or ask questions.
The storyteller I chose was Amar; he works with me at Lutheran Social Services. I already knew a bit about Amar’s story. In 2005 Amar was working for an American engineering firm in Turkrit, Iraq. One day as he was making his way home from work, Amar was seriously injured in an explosion. Terrorists put a bomb under his car. He was life-flighted to Jordan where he began a long and painful recovery that included seven surgeries and completely relearning how to walk. In 2007, Amar came to Fargo as a refugee. He began working for Lutheran Social Services as an interpreter and working towards a Master’s Degree in Architecture at NDSU and rebuilding a life for himself.
I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but even though I was curious about Amar’s journey, I was not expecting to have anything in common with Amar or relate to his experiences. In addition to the profound trauma he survived, I figured that our individual biology, histories and cultures just made us different people. It’s funny how easy our preconceived notions about a person or a situation can put barriers between people-even the ones we know and care about.
Amar told us that he had grown up in a small town and that his parents were farmers; I grew up in a small town and my parents were farmers. I was delighted to find out that Amar and I share a love of travel and a desire to experience other cultures and we were both able to visit places we had always wanted to go; Amar to Turkey and I to India. During a similar time frame we both experienced events that left us grieving, shattered, and wondering ‘what happens now?’ Both of us ended up starting over in Fargo, ND and as part of that new life we both chose to go back to school. A desire to help other people led us both to be employed together at Lutheran Social Services. I realized that in spite of our differences, I could see little reflections of my own life in Amar’s story and even if I hadn’t I still would have been moved by his courage and perseverance.
It is the connections we have with other people that are real; our separations are an illusion, but sometimes we have to feel uncomfortable or unsteady or take a leap of faith to discover those connections. We have to engage people who come from a different ethnic group; people a lot older or younger; people who are gay, straight, or have different political or theological points of view; people who believe crazy things or are mentally ill. When we make true connection we touch what is holy.